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NBA strategists stay ahead of a fast-moving data industry

By Derick Moss

As the industry rebounded from a generational pandemic this summer, Michael James, the NBA’s head of data strategy and analytics, began tracking the number of analyst positions posted on LinkedIn. The results were eye-popping: “Another 51 Sports Business Strategy and Analytics roles were posted in October alone, bringing the total number to 355 for 2021 thus far — nearly double our previous high of 187 posted roles in 2019,” James wrote in a LinkedIn post in early November.

Those results are not a blip on the radar; they are indicative of the importance of data to the industry at this moment.

“In general, when we look at the [analyst] job market, it’s very strong everywhere,” James said. “One of the things we’re excited about is a sense of where this market is going. … Our Future Analytics Stars program, for example, is a way to fill the pipeline of talent. Tracking these postings is all about trying to understand this new way of looking at data strategy and analytics, what we need to do from a league level to support our teams and how do we get in front of that demand.”

Matt Wolf, NBA senior vice president and head of global strategy and innovation, emphasized the importance of being quick to evolve while still holding on to core values.

“The pandemic is changing the way we’re working more quickly than what some might have anticipated,” Wolf said. “Our job is helping change the businesses that we’re in as we continue to migrate to a more digitally focused, direct-to-consumer model. So when we think about all these new digital products — Top Shot, NFTs, blockchain — that opens up a new segment of fans to address and collect data on. The data is more robust and you have to bring in the types of people and skills that can be most helpful. But the focus on developing a better relationship with the fan will always be at the center of what we do.”

The NBA has long been considered among the most innovative leagues and is a trendsetter in terms of how it uses and shares data among its franchises. That means that data teams are more diverse than ever, with new use cases coming online every day and opportunities opening up unexpectedly.

“What I’m excited about are the new kinds of roles and titles popping up in the industry,” James said. “If you look at our league — the Jazz are looking for an analytics and tagging specialist, the Spurs are hiring for a corporate process and strategy director — and when you think about data engineering and architecture, there are new positions in that space that teams like the Cavs are filling. It’s a great time to be an analyst in sports business, no question.”

As for the crowded market of data providers in the industry, Wolf said that’s just a case of supply catching up with demand. “It’s a signal of how much the industry has grown,” he said. 

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